Karl Lagerfeld: icon or problematic figure?


Abbey Alexander '19

A Chanel purse, the legacy of Karl Lagerfeld.

Abbey Alexander, Arts and Entertainment

Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel and fashion icon, passed away on Feb 19, 2019, at the age of 85. He was widely known for his impact on the fashion world and as a face of fashion himself. Working as both an art director and freelance artist throughout his career, creating key relationships as one of the first freelance designers in the fashion industry. According to Harper’s Bazaar,  He collaborated with Fendi, created his own scent for Chloe, launched his own line while balancing his responsibilities, dabbled in photography, and even appeared in an Andy Warhol movie. In short, Lagerfeld was a legend. From his work to the way he carried himself, his image spoke for itself. No one is doubting his impact on the fashion world, but his no-filter personality is a different story. Here lies the question: can a legend still be a legend, and still honored for their work, even if they were considered problematic in life?

Simply put, Karl Lagerfeld was not in the business of agreeing with others. He put his work first and his likability second. For some, this made his allure even more charming. For others, the things he has said were just too disagreeable to look past. Whether you call it problematic or no-filter, his comments on political and social issues were controversial, to say the least. He was known for commenting on the weight of models and various celebrities, saying Heidi Klum was “too heavy”. He also made negative comments about the Me Too movement and was accused of spreading ideas of white supremacy, which may not be surprising to some, considering the famous Coco Chanel herself, founder of Chanel, was affiliated with the Nazi movement in her time. Lagerfeld even made shocking comments about Syrian refugees and scorned Germany for its open borders to migrants. According to the Guardian, Lagerfeld went so far as to claim “I know someone in Germany who took a young Syrian and after four days said: ‘the greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust'”.

Like many (white) men in power, Lagerfeld never really faced repercussions for the things he said. He was still able to carry out a groundbreakingly successful career for the rest of his life, maintaining loyal fans and clients who continued to support his work. But why? Shouldn’t we use instances as a lesson to those in positions of power, especially in an industry as large as fashion, to prove that they can’t necessarily get away with saying such awful things unscathed? Maybe so. But Others argue that an artist and their art are two separate things, and you can disagree with an artist while still supporting or loving their work. Either way, there’s something to be said about how the death of Lagerfeld, among other famous yet problematic figures, brings up an issue that so many debate: can we honor and mourn a figure if they were problematic in life? And how can we praise a man’s work if we don’t agree with his morals?

The simple answer to this is that often, death protects a person’s legacy and shields their imperfections. Traditionally, when a famous figure passes away, people come out and say all things lovely about them, rather than point out their flaws. However, this is changing with the times. An emerging concept of “cancel” or “call out” culture has become topical in recent times. This culture essentially encapsulates the idea that if a celebrity or public figure says something to be problematic- this could be a comment about race, an old tweet someone dug up from 2013, or even someone associating with another problematic figure- they should no longer be praised, and are therefore “canceled”. The upside of this, is that celebrities are getting less and less able to get away with racism, sexism, ignorant comments, etc. However, some argue that the culture has gone too far, and now people are just digging to find content which allows them to cancel a celebrity. This is where Karl Lagerfeld comes in. Is he someone we can rightfully “cancel”, or does his work deserve our respect, even if the things he has said don’t?